Australian fires: Finding the silver lining

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Written by: Astrid Simmonds

Australia’s 2020 summer fires are up there with the most depressing, anxiety-inducing topics out there for me. There are hundreds of articles that bombard their readers with stories about families who have lost their homes, animals that have lost their lives and a nation that has lost hope. Take this story by BBC titled “Australia fires: 113 animal species need ‘emergency help’”.[1] According to this article, the fires have killed ~1 billion animals[2]. ABC News reported that 12.6 million hectares have been burnt,[3] – which is larger than the North Island of New Zealand (11.37 million hectares[4]). These figures are unfathomable. It’s no secret that the fires are destructible – but I can’t help looking for a positive end to this story. How will the environment return to its pre-fire condition?

One of the most iconic trees in Australia is Eucalyptus. It has spent millions of years adapting to the frequent fires and has even figured out ways to get an adaptive advantage out of the fires. Some species only germinate after a fire, ensuring that the eucalyptus has a head start over any other fauna. Certain Eucalyptus species can produce epicormic buds, which is when branches are restored on the trunks with new buds.[5] This is especially useful in post-fire repopulation as the existing trunk can have a second life. Eucalyptus grows extremely fast, some of which can grow almost to canopy height within a year of fire.[6]

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The fires have left a trail of destruction, which happens to be an environment where insects can thrive. Flies can lay their eggs on animal remains, which will then be eaten by the larvae.[8] Beetles like the Grey Furrowed Rosechafer can breed in the fallen eucalyptus logs.[9] The growing insect life creates a food source for birds, which will return to the forests after the insects. Koalas have probably the most media coverage regarding the fires. According to Newshub, 8000 koalas have died in the fires – which is about 1/3 of the population.[10] What about the injured koalas? The good news is that koalas that have been injured and kept in sanctuaries until they have healed have the same rates of reproduction as uninjured koalas.[11] There are many koala sanctuaries scattered throughout Australia, which have been very useful to rehabilitate the injured koalas.

Slowly but surely the Australian outback will regenerate, the old life will return, and new life will blossom. Even now in March, the Eucalyptus forests are becoming greener by the day due to the epicormic buds. The damage done to the flora and fauna is immense, but life goes on, and life will be restored. I feel as if the media has been focusing on a gloomy – but honest narrative, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a silver lining.